Horror in Black and White: ‘Cat People’ (1942)

Waylon JordanEditor's PicksLeave a Comment

Hello Readers, and welcome to Horror in Black and White, a brand new series highlighting the classic films that chilled and thrilled us in all their monochromatic glory, and I can think of no better film for our first outing than Cat People 1942.

Written by DeWitt Bodeen and directed by Jacques Tourneur, Cat People was the first film from producer Val Lewton for RKO Pictures in an attempt to compete with Universal’s magnificent monsters.

In the film, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a fashion artist newly arrived in New York from Serbia, has found a home close to the zoo where she is comforted by the sounds of the large cats. Though she’s reluctant, Irena marries Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), and it’s only then that he begins to realize who she might really be.

Irena believes she is descended from powerful women who, when their passions rise, morph into fierce and dangerous cats themselves, and Oliver might just believe her.

It was almost impossible to take your eyes off Simone Simon in Val Lewton’s Cat People.

Now, if you’re sure you’ve never seen Cat People before, but you’re thinking you’ve heard this story, you’re not entirely wrong.

Bodeen’s story was steeped in Old World folklore and fairy tale archetypes. The repressed sexuality of Irena echoes that of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty; her curiosity that of Little Red Riding Hood when she strayed from the path.

The battle between desire and control is strong in this film, and Simon radiates both. In fact, it’s almost impossible to look away from her magnetic eyes in almost every scene.

Lewton was seemingly up against the wall from day one of the 18 day shoot. Three days in, the supervisor wanted him fired, but the studio head stepped in and forbade his firing. It may be one of the few times a meddling studio head was right!

Lewton pinched pennies right and left coming in under budget by using shadow and light to his advantage. He instinctively knew just how much to show the black panther in the film and understood the flash of an eye in the darkness could be much more terrifying than seeing the creature in full.

Lewton’s use of shadow was pure genius.

Perhaps it was his time as a film editor that gave him this insight, but Lewton’s eye combined with Tourneur’s direction created a film that is both atmospheric and terrifying. It’s the perfect film for a rainy evening in, and one that I cannot recommend enough.

The film was a success at the box office despite mixed reviews, and cemented Lewton’s reputation for creating successful horror films though that reputation often chafed in the years to come…but that’s a story for another day.

One final note: Irena is, in many ways, all women of her time. The sexual revolution was still decades away however, and unfortunately her story falls prey to the conventions of the time. A woman with that much power simply couldn’t survive.

I have often wondered what a female writer and director could do with this story in a more modern setting. I think it would be a very different film, but one that I would love to see, personally. I only have one request: Do it in black and white.

Cat People is currently available for rent on both Amazon and Vudu for only $2.99.

Join us again next week for our next edition of Horror in Black and White!

Waylon Jordan is a lifelong fan of genre fiction and film especially those with a supernatural element. He firmly believes that horror reflects collective fears of society and can be used as a tool for social change.